Iran nuclear deal can inform N. Korea talks
Seoul’s Defense Ministry on Friday came out strongly against North Korea for its renewed pledge to cling to its nuclear weapons program. A ministry spokesman said in a statement that Pyongyang’s possession of any nuclear arms cannot be accepted and South Korea’s military will respond sternly if the North continues to be provocative.
This warning came after Hyon Yong Chol, the chief of North Korea’s People’s Armed Forces, argued a day earlier at an international security conference in Moscow that its possession of nuclear bombs “is the direct result of the hostile policy by the United States and ... aimed at eliminating its nuclear threat.”
On the same day, however, South Korea’s pointman on Pyongyang expressed hope that the frozen interKorean relations would begin to thaw in the near future. At a press conference held to mark the 30th day of his inauguration, Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo saw it as a positive sign that the two Koreas have maintained contact, though in a limited way. He said there could be more substantive improvement in inter-Korean ties after April.
Hong was referring to the possibility of Pyongyang seeking to reopen talks with Seoul after the ongoing joint military drill between South Korea and the U.S. ends later this week. The North has rejected the South’s earlier offer of high-level dialogue in protest at the annual Seoul-Washington exercise, which it views as a rehearsal for the allies’ invasion of the communist state.
In February, North Korea unilaterally decided to raise wages for its workers hired by South Korean companies at a joint industrial complex in the North’s border city of Gaeseong. Pyongyang, however, has held consultations on the wage issue with Seoul’s quasi-governmental committee set up to support the operation of the factory park without taking any further arbitrary steps. This attitude seems to be viewed by Seoul officials as signaling that the North will eventually accept the dialogue offer from the South.
During last week’s news conference, Unification Minister Hong said Seoul was considering allowing South private Korean groups to expand humanitarian assistance to the North. Another ministry official reiterated Seoul’s stance that it was ready to discuss easing blanket sanctions imposed on Pyongyang after the North’s torpedo attack on a South Korean warship in 2010, if the two Koreas hold high-level talks.
But Seoul may find it difficult to decide on whether and to what extent to lift the punitive measures when Pyongyang is active on interKorean dialogue but continues to stick to its nuclear weapons program and refuses to apologize for the naval attack.
Some observers expect Washington may seek to engage more actively with Pyongyang now that a framework agreement on reining in Iran’s nuclear program has been reached and the process of restoring U.S.-Cuba ties frozen for five decades has been put on track. These changes in global geopolitical conditions may also serve to prompt the North to look for a way out of its international isolation and economic predicament.
But it is likely that the Obama administration will not be ready to cut a deal with Pyongyang as it focuses on gaining cooperation from the Republican-controlled Congress in sealing accords with Iran and Cuba.
Under these circumstances, South Korean officials need to be more adroit and proactive in inducing the North to take the course of securing its survival by bolstering its crumbling economy with support from the international community in return for discarding its nuclear arsenal — in a gradual manner if necessary. This is an editorial published by The Korea Herald on April 21.